|Billy Budd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (photo by Richard Termine)|
It is the late 18th c., the Age of Enlightenment, but there is no enlightenment in the British Navy. As we learn in Scene 2, Great Britain is at war with France. (Interestingly, the war was an economic one, involving whose ships would be allowed to enter whose ports, creating problems for the Jeffersonian presidency.) The Brits refer to the French having killed their own king and perhaps planning to kill the British king next. They want nothing to do with the rights of the common man.
Discipline is unduly harsh with common seamen being impressed by so-called "press gangs", a recruitment procedure common to that era; lashings were meted out for such trivial "offenses" as slipping or not moving fast enough. Men had to obey mere striplings in fancy uniform who achieved their position by virtue of fortunate birth. Mere boys were used as "powder monkeys". This is NOT your HMS Pinafore!
The officers (bass David Soar as Mr. Flint and baritone Stephen Gadd as Mr. Redburn) have further concerns because other ships had suffered mutinies based on this cruel treatment and that is as great a concern as chasing down French ships.
Into this world enters Billy Budd (baritone Jaccques Imbrailo), a merchant seaman (from a ship significantly called "Rights o' Man"!) who seems not to mind being impressed and who shows every evidence of being an enthusiastic and talented sailor. He is also young, beautiful, innocent and good-hearted, becoming the darling of his shipmates.
His nemesis Master-at-Arms John Claggart (bass Brindley Sherratt) is evil personified. He delivers a chilling soliloquoy indicating that he is self-aware of his evil. Iago wanted revenge for being passed over; Richard III wanted power; Claggart is just evil for its own sake and is determined to destroy Billy by entrapment. Billy's fatal flaw is his innocence; although warned by an older shipmate Dansker (bass-baritone Jeremy White) of Claggart's evil intent, Billy laughs it off.
Billy also suffers from stammering and when called upon to defend himself against Claggart's trumped up charges of fomenting mutiny, he cannot speak and strikes Claggart who dies. Captain Vere, while knowing that Billy is innocent, must call a court martial and does nothing to save Billy's life. Just think about the cover-up that would take place in today's navy in the USA! Under the Articles of War, Billy must hang for striking and "murdering" a superior officer. No such thing there as "manslaughter". Hang he does, but not without an aria in which he achieves inner peace and courage.
In later years, Capt. Vere also finds peace as we learn in the epilogue of this stunning 2010 production from Glyndebourne. Director Michael Grandage and Ian Rutherford, the revival director, brought Melville's tale to vivid life. We cannot give enough credit to designer Christopher Oram for the incredibly realistic sets and apposite costuming, augmented by Paule Constable's fine lighting.
If we have focused excessively on the story and the production it is in no way critical of Britten's powerful music and the fine voices that inhabited the characters to perfection. Nor would we shortchange the superlative playing of the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Mark Elder nor the contributions of The Glyndebourne Chorus. It's just the power of the drama and its sense of reality that overwhelmed us. During the interludes we were aware of some very interesting harmonies occurring in the orchestra, especially the chords that indicated Vere's moral indecision. But we confess that the reality of the production is what we will remember of this incomparable evening.
© meche kroop
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